Serving the Story

StonesGhost3D-smlOn February 2, The Guardian ran a story about J. K. Rowling admitting she erred when she had Hermoine end up with Ron rather than Harry Potter. In the article, she is quoted as saying, “I wrote the Hermione-Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. That’s how it was conceived, really. For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron.”

I imagine a ton of Harry Potter fans were extremely angry over this pairing, and to my mind, they were absolutely right. I don’t think betrayal would be too strong a word to use here. The chemistry between Hermoine and Ron was never of the type or the depth as that between her and Harry, so to toss in a curve ball like that is just dead wrong.

And I understand entirely why she did it.

In one of my latest books, Stone’s Ghost, I had the ending and the last line written before I had the first chapter done. The last line was a one-word text from the main character to his girlfriend, and it brought the story full circle and ended on an upbeat note. I really, really liked this ending.

Then I finished the rest of the book, guiding it down to those last few paragraphs, only to find that my ending didn’t fit.

But I liked that ending. I tried to shoehorn it in. I rewrote the last page over and over, changing the build-up, trying to twist the story to fit my image of the end. It was like trying to fit a piece of two-by-four into a long, elegant section of crown molding.

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It just didn’t work.

I finally had to admit defeat. I finally had to own up to the fact that my ending was not right for the story. It ended the story on a cheap shot, a sharp left turn from nowhere, and it brought with it no sense of satisfaction, of completion, of resolution.

I knew I had to throw it out.

But it wasn’t easy. I let the book lie untouched for a couple of days, let the chatter in my head die down as I slowly got used to the idea of not using my prize ending. Then I went back, deleted the last two pages and started in again.

Only this time, I let the story dictate the ending.

I’ve blogged before about how writing is like building a wall, each sentence building on the one that came before, each sentence providing the foundation for the one to come. This time when I wrote, I let that happen. The direction of the story, the tone, the tilt, the emotion, all guided me to the ending that it needed to have. It was not something I would have envisioned before, but this time, when I wrote the end, it worked. I knew as soon as I typed the last period that this ending was it — the best, the only, the perfect fulfillment of a great story.

*Happy dance*

And of course at this point, I was perfectly happy to leave my original ending in the waste basket now that I had the one the story needed, but it was tough for a while. It’s funny how we can get so attached to one idea that it’s almost painful letting it go, but at some point we writers have to realize that we aren’t writing for ourselves. We’re writing for the story. That’s our lord and master, and our egos have to take a back seat to that. To do anything less is cheating the story, cheating the characters — and, ultimately, cheating our readers, as Rowling found out.

The only place for wishful thinking like that is in our private journals, written by flashlight in the dead of night, never to see the light of day.

Everything else must serve the story.

[You can read Serving the Story Part 2 by clicking here.]

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is the award-winning author of twelve novels and one non-fiction title. She lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

28 thoughts on “Serving the Story”

  1. I have to disagree here. I don’t think Rowling made a mistake with Hermione and Ron. IMO, the chemistry between them was always there, just hidden behind the exteriors they portrayed to everyone and each other.
    I know that for the most part our characters tell the story and we are just instruments in their songs. But, I do write for me first and always. After all, if I’m not happy with the story, how can I expect others to be?

    1. Nicole, obviously from the comments here, there’s a huge range of opinions about the degree to which the Hermoine-Ron pairing works or does not work, but I think the salient point is that Rowling didn’t think it worked. I would guess all of us writers have experienced those times when we try and try to wedge something into a story and it just doesn’t fit, so we feel the need to keep tweaking it; conversely, I’d bet we’ve all experienced those times that we put the last period to the last sentence, sit back and say, “Yes!” For me, if I did the former and then published before I ever got to the latter, I would feel extreme dissatisfaction with the book, and would have a difficult time even marketing it, knowing it was not yet the story that it could be. Like you, I write for myself and the story only, knowing there will be enough readers who like it as I do (and of course always some who don’t).

  2. Isn’t it nice how, once the writer puts the story out in front of the public, that public takes ownership? A reader can disagree completely with the writer’s opinion of the book, and nobody turns a whisker. A lesson to all writers who think they can control anything once the book is out of their hands 🙂

    FWIW, I don’t think Harry Potter had chemistry with anyone except his arch-enemy, and a love interest wasn’t in the cards. Writing wish-fulfillment for the reading public is what caused Charles Dickens to put that ridiculous happy ending on Great Expectations. I say, if you’ve got your public so involved in your characters that they want to manage their lives, you’ve done your job. Tip your hat and slowly ride away.

    1. “A lesson to all writers who think they can control anything once the book is out of their hands.” No argument there, Gordon. Once we set that book free, everyone who reads it does so through their own set of filters, beliefs, experiences, and no two people will see the same thing. The only control we have is to make the book the best it can be–for the story, for the characters. Beyond that, it’s out of our hands.

  3. I saw the Rowling comment, and it’s interesting that she said that. And while I always found the Ron-Hermione pairing less than inspiring, I liked the overall end of the story. I liked that Harry got this family, this huge, wonderful family, like he’d always imagined, by marrying Ginny Weasley. So, for me, I was OK with it, despite the fact that there was more chemistry between Hermione and Harry than Ron and Hermione.

    What’s most interesting is Rowling admitted she felt it was a mistake, because I was very willing to accept it as part of the grand scheme of things. But, it does feel awkward when the author says, Oops!

    Which is, of course, Melissa’s point. You should always stay true to the story. That way, you can avoid the oops moments.

  4. Great post, Melissa. This is why I don’t write scenes out of order any more — writing the bridge into them gets too messy. 😀

    I suppose a pairing like Ron and Hermione could work in real life, but they’d need a lot of couples counseling, lol. And I’m not sure Hermione would have been any better off with Harry; they’re both such strong personalities that the marriage might have turned into a power struggle. (Armchair psychology is one of my favorite hobbies — can you tell? 😀 )

    1. Lynne, I can understand your decision not to write scenes out of order; I think sometimes once we commit a scene to paper, we are so invested in it that we don’t want to throw it away, which may not be the best thing for the story. Thanks for sharing that.

    2. Thinking more about your armchair psychology, that goes right back into the realism (or not) of the characters and their interaction. How believable would it be to have Hermoine end up with Snape? After we’ve invested hours in getting to know the characters, to have them act out emotions we haven’t seen building in them feels false. The emotions of the characters, and the characters themselves, have to be organic and grow naturally. (But of course that never precludes the possibility of couples therapy!)

  5. Aw, spoiler alert! 😉 Kidding. But I understand staying true to the story. I had practically an existential crisis over my last ending. I’d actually “chosen” an ending, but it kept not working. Much as I tried to shove the characters in that direction, they weren’t budging. Now I need to go read the last book in the Harry Potter series…

  6. Yes, I almost had that with my first book. I knew what the climax would be and wrote that pivotal scene half way through. My characters certainly don’t always do what I planned. Fortunately it did work for me in the end but it was a near thing. When all is said and done it is the story that dictates the ending. Sometimes we have to budge from our best laid plans.

    1. Yvonne, you were lucky that your initial plan for the ending worked out. Less stress that way. But I find this whole process fascinating, that give and take between our heads and our guts. It’s a very delicate, intricate dance.

  7. It reminds me of a film school I attended. There was a big poster on the wall of the editing suite that read, “Love Nothing”. It was a reminder not to fall in love with any piece of footage because in the end it might not fit. I’ve found the same rule applies in writing. As difficult as it may be to let go of a piece to which I’ve become attached, it’s sometimes necessary.
    As for Harry Potter, the Ron-Hermione match took me by surprise at first, but it made sense. IMO, pairing Harry with Hermione would have been too predictable a move and made the ending less memorable.

    1. Mandy, sounds very similar to Kristen Lamb’s posts about our need to “kill the little darlings,” dumping those things we get attached to but that do nothing to help the story. I think we all have them, but if we have good beta-readers and editors, those folks will point out the problems and help us trim the story into the lean, mean machine it’s supposed to be.

  8. Quite so, Yvonne. The story has its own ending and so the author must discover the story in order to know the ending. My stories grow from the characters and their interactions with each other and their wider environment. The ending is where the characters take the story. In the course of planning and writing, if I autocratically command the direction of the story the result is rubbish.

    1. Stephen, I think you’re absolutely right. If we try to intellectually command the story, we are no longer serving the story; we are demanding that the story serve us, and it just doesn’t work that way. At least it doesn’t for me.

  9. I think JK originally wanted to stir away from the typical pairing, the old traditional ‘the hero gets the girl’ stereotype. Plus, so often, in life, as much as we may like and want a ‘love interest to be the one’ often people go in different directions. Hermione and Harry were too much alike and the adage ‘opposites attract’ stands true. And there were scenes which showed it would never work between them. The truth of it is…I’m not so sure Hermione would have ended up with either of them, because quite a bit, she couldn’t stand Ron. She might have ended up the bachelorette/spinster witch who never married anyone! And that, I see as the true ending. Ron would have married someone else. Harry exactly who he ended up with, and Hermoine happy and content and at peace with her chosen lifestyle. Tah-dah!
    And too tough if everyone’s vision of the perfect ending wasn’t the true one. Can’t say much but this: it is true…characters should be allowed to run their lives true to who they have shown themselves to be, not some preconceived structured round and square hammered in peg to hole fitting. We humans have so many flaws and little ever turns out how we expect the day we graduate from high school…why should it be perfect in a written story? That’s dull. Why read it? Spontaneity and sudden surprises is the gold among the chaff. Be happy for them and quit being childish…a lot of kids grew up with Harry and the gang…and not one kid saw perfection along the way. Life, whether in reality or in literature thrives on the unexpected. It’s a sign of realism; the difference between carbon copy cut-outs and characters that jump off the page.

  10. “characters should be allowed to run their lives true to who they have shown themselves to be” — exactly my point. And no one–not the reader and not the writer–will make the story more authentic by trying to bend it to their own wish-fulfillment.

  11. I think JK has been reading her fan fiction. 🙂 And as Gordon said above there is an interesting dynamic when the public feels so tightly connected to the characters. It makes you feel their expectations more keenly.
    There were always subtle signs of admiration and interest between Ron and Hermione and Harry and Ginny. I always think the last scene at the train station is odd – Draco with a mustache, Ron with a gut. Kids playing dress-up.
    I think artists find fault with their work even when it is “completed.” How many of us would like to rip apart an earlier book and rewrite it? I would.

    1. LOL, yes, I think I could keep tweaking years later, but I’ve found that’s often related to mood. I’ve changed a bit in a book one day, gone back and looked at it the next and changed it back to the way it was. I’ve sometimes put a mental disclaimer on a book: it’s done–today. Tomorrow all bets are off.

  12. Great post, Melissa, and sadly so true. Once begun, a story is an organic thing, and must be respected. I’m struggling with something similar at the moment. Perhaps your post is a sign that I need to take a step back and admit defeat. -sigh-

    1. It may feel like defeat right now, but I’m guessing once you let it go, give it some space and then come back to it, you’ll take it (or it’ll take you) to new heights! We not only need to respect the organic quality, we need to embrace it. Easier said than done, I know. I hope you’ll keep us posted on the process.

      1. I hope so too, Melissa. I suspect my life is just too much up in the air at the moment to give me the space to immerse myself in the story. Hopefully that will change in the near future. 🙂

  13. ‘The chemistry between Hermoine and Ron was never of the type or the depth as that between her and Harry, so to toss in a curve ball like that is just dead wrong.’

    But that is your opinion.

    I am amazed at the reported Rowling comment. As someone commented perhaps the fans had got at her. It is not what she originally said.

    Being true to the story and telling it honestly is what most writers try to do. That readers want something more sloppily traditional, expected, or their own way is tough bickies. Readers are invited to share a story, not control it.

    1. I humbly admit this is my opinion and obviously not everyone shares it. And I totally agree that the writer must serve the story and not the fans. Much as I love my fans, I don’t write for them. I tried writing “commercial” fiction once (what the “public” wanted), and it was crap. Now I write as if no one will ever read a word of it. It’s much cleaner that way and, as always, some will love it, some won’t. That will never change.

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